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45 at 33: Echo & The Bunnymen are sailing on the Seven Seas. Ocean Rain approaching

“Never be afraid to find your voice. I listen to old Bunnymen records now and think I sound cringe-worthy and over the top. But that’s a process a singer often has to go through… At heart I’m just a frustrated black soul singer in a white man’s underpants.” — Ian McCulloch, The Guardian, 2008

Of all the seminal British post-punk vocalists, if I had to do a listicle thing then Ian McCulloch may well be top of the pile. 

As enigmatic frontman of Merseyside miscreants Echo & The Bunnymen, he’s not nearly as monotone as Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis nor as flabulous as the Cure’s Robert Smith.

McCulloch certainly knows his strengths. For a performer whose reputation as the ‘Liverpool Lip’ was based on a gobby personality and an interview persona (one that almost certainly formed part of the model for the ever-entertaining Noel Gallagher) as much as it was for his singing, it’s easy to forget what a great singer Mac The Mouth is/was.

Shockingly clear and expressive, he does have the range. McCulloch’s wondrous, powerful vocals soar pretty darn high — a G4 in tech terms — towards the end of The Killing Moon, for instance. Coming on like a Bond theme that never was, all his “apocalyptic brooding” is distilled in that singular, defining performance as he croons a taut tightrope act that sits somewhere between Mac’s miserablist touchstones – Morrison, Cohen, Brel, the swinging suicide side of Sinatra – while taking more than a few cues from Bowie’s beloved “Heroes” period for added paranoid emotion and plain old showbiz melodrama.

“Ocean Rain is kissing music, songs to fall in love to. I liked Bowie for the same magical reasons.” — Ian McCulloch, 1984

Setting the scene for the band’s fourth studio album, 1984’s epic magnum opus Ocean Rain, The Killing Moon marked the point where the Bunnymen moved away from the nervy pseudo-psychedelic energy of their earlier work and embarked on a series of recordings with “strings and things” that fused sweeping majestic orchestrations with lush, melancholy balladry.

It was a path widened further with a tasty triumvirate of cinematic singles: the shimmering Silver, the soaring Seven Seas and the sublime Bring On The Dancing Horses*. At a time when U2 and Simple Minds were on the commercial ascendent, the Bunnymen’s sheer iridescent grandness was unrivalled in magnitude.

By the summer of ’84, I’d become heavily influenced by the voracious ‘anything goes’ vibe of The Joint, a New Romantic-inspired polysexual club in Milton Keynes I’d started slipping into under-age and most definitely overwhelmed. Way ahead of its time and totally alternative before we even knew what alternative was, it was basically The Blitz for the Home Counties.

This place had a video screen — almost unheard of for a nightclub at that time. Inspired as much by the look of the music played as the sound, in no time at all, I started enjoying more leftfield pursuits, buying a clutch of records by New Order, the Associates, the Cure and the Bunnymen. (Going directly to source, David Bowie followed before the end of the year.)

And yes, I’ve heard it already, spiky bonce: Ian McCulloch called and he wants his hairdo back.

Released on 2 July 1984 (take my word for it, wonky Wikipedia is out by four days), Seven Seas was my first Echo & The Bunnymen purchase, and although it meant no ‘Sir’ Les Pattison as portly penguin on the front, I managed to grab a lovely limited edition double-pack 7-inch to boot. Featuring a rendition of the Beatles’ All You Need Is Love (the sitar’s the star) and a couple of live-off-the-telly acoustic versions of previous Bunnymen chestnuts, all taken from the band’s Play At Home programme, Life At Brian’s.

The rum surrealism of Seven Seas is still a brilliantly bonkers pop perennial, and, I suppose for slightly sentimental reasons, is the great restorative of the band’s illustrious catalogue for me. My favourite finger, you might say.

The whole jolly was a dive into a temperate ocean on a moon-shadowed night. Swimming with reverb, the string-heavy soundscape was rich and radiant with a depth that owed much to clever self-production as it did Will Sergeant’s varied and textural guitar work. Replete with ‘Wedding bell’ chimes and guest arranger Adam Peters’ piano accentuating the brightness, it all led to a rousing, crescendo chorus dominated by Mac’s resonant velvety baritone.

Les‘s circular four-note bass is also quite something, though I suspect having been the cover star of the regular release gave him a Get Out Of Beeb Free card when it came to performing the song on Top Of The Pops.

Like many McCulloch songs, the impressionistic, Bowie-esque stream-of-conscience lyrics were open to interpretation. 

“Like Seven Seas, I feel like I’m a sailor who’s singing a shanty psalm or something. He’s done sailing.” — Ian McCulloch

Word has it that Korova, the Bunnymen’s record company, fought tooth and nail against paying for the 45’s Anton Corbijn-directed promotional film, afraid its levity would compromise the band’s image as the Dark Romantic Serious Men Of Indie.

The fruitily delicious vision of McCulloch in startlingly persuasive drag (a knowing nod to Bowie’s Boys Keep Swinging, replete with lipstick-smearing denouement) could have been just what some of us, in the sexual malleability of androgynous adolescence, needed to see; some fresher feeling. Not ‘arf.

Alas, despite the tabloid-worthy crossdressing promo, Seven Seas bettered Silver’s chart position (a criminally low 30) but didn’t appeal to the public on the same level as the top ten glory of The Killing Moon, peaking in sixteenth place on the UK chart the last week of July. 

In fact, seeing fellow Scousers Frankie Goes To Hollywood at numbers one and three must have irritated Mac no end. And he wouldn’t trouble the upper echelons of the charts again until the Bunnymen reformed in 1997 with the elegiac Nothing Lasts Forever. Nevertheless, Seven Seas a wonderfully optimistic and sumptuous cornerstone of Ocean Rain and one of the finest in the Bunnymen canon.

Stab a sorry heart.

Steve Pafford

BONUS BEATS: *Later, on a December 1984 episode of Channel 4’s The Tube to plug his first solo record — a cover of the seasonal war-horse September Song. (“Which I believe is the fastest selling single next to Band Aid out at the moment,” a monkeyish Jools Holland lies, convincingly… to which Mac smirks, clearly the organ grinder who dreamt up the deception. It didn’t even make the top 40).

In the cosy exchange, Ian trailed the Bunnymen’s plans for 1985 — that they’d be going in an even poppier direction with, “not an album but a lot of singles.” 

“The next one’s going to be like ABBA meets Giorgio Moroder. Not dancey… really melodic, uptempo. I haven’t written it yet.

Anticipating the sound he wanted for what would become Bring On The Dancing Horses before settling on the lyrics, Mac set his sights on the producer role being occupied by “Laurie Latham, possibly, or the ABBA people I think are really good.

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